Molly's Game Deals Middling Hand

Directed by Aaron Sorkin
STXfilms, 140 minutes, R (language, some violence, drugs)

The toughest review to write is of a work that neither stinks like rotten fish nor soars like a hawk. Molly's Game falls into that category. One thing is certain, though: its hype is greater than its delivery.  

Jessica Chastain plays the role of Molly Bloom (b. 1978) and most of what you see actually happened. Bloom hails from a high-achieving Colorado family—one brother is a two-time Olympian and former NFL player, the other a surgeon—and her psychologist father really was her ski coach before a devastating back injury destroyed Molly's Olympic dreams. As in the film, Molly was on her way to law school before impulsively moving to Los Angeles for a gap year in the sun. Her family cut her off and she needed to earn her own freight, a journey that took her from waitress to high-stake poker gopher for real estate agent/nightclub owner Darin Feinstein. His name is changed to Dean Keith in the film and is played with abusive creepiness by Jeremy Strong. The film club is called the Cobra Club, but the real one is the Viper Club where River Phoenix overdosed in 1993. Eventually Molly spun off her own game—one with buy-ins routinely in excess of $10,000. Among its clients was a veritable bad boys' celebrity list, among them: Leo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, and Macaulay Caulkin. They are thinly veiled in the film, though their names were public before Molly's book hit the stands in 2014. The movie's Player X (Michael Cera) is partly a composite, but he is mostly Tobey Maguire, who—sad to say—is apparently a world-class asshole who gets his kicks from belittling people. Molly's Hollywood game was glitz and glamour that catered to the arrogant, rich, and amoral. As Molly learns, everyone there is running a game of his own—always his—and as smart as she is, hers is not the hand that commands the power grid. Although she gains wealth from running the game, we're talking the kind of stakes in which one player lost $100 million in a single evening.

One of the lessons of the film is that Molly is, in her own way, arrogant as well. When she's shut out of the Hollywood game, she transports it to New York City, whose high roller rubes and regals have even deeper pockets, if less celebrity star power. Molly's game has rules. Gorgeous women in sexy attire abound, but there is no sex or procurement thereof; her Playboy bunnies are chosen for their business savvy as well as their curves. Also, no drugs, no players she doesn't vet, and no rake for Molly as that would constitute an illegal unlicensed casino. Technically, Molly works for tips and hospitality services. All is legal and aboveboard—until it isn't.  Call it a classic case of diving into water too deep and too swift. Three years after she bowed out, ehe FBI raided her apartment, clapped her in irons, froze her accounts, and brought charges of money laundering and illegal sports gambling. She needed a lawyer, but had no way of coming up with a $250,000 retainer fee. In the film, lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) takes her case for reasons unclear even to himself. This is an invention; in actuality she had a team of lawyers—whose future payment was indeed uncertain—and the lead attorney was white, not African American. Molly's book and arrest was tabloid fodder back in 2014, until the next yellow journalism sensation chased her off the front page.

Molly's Game is a tight story, even if parts of it are invented. Molly was true to her word and did not out anyone not already fingered, but she was not as pure as presented on the screen. (There was a plea bargain, despite what the film says). There is much that can be said about the hypocrisy of a society that gives the odds on every sporting event, but declares most betting schemes illegal. There is even more to be said about one that busts a woman who facilitates gambling but doesn't touch the famous male players. Indeed, one might tackle the entire question of "victimless" crimes. Molly's Game infers such issues but in the end, it's a fairly routine film that we've seen before. Replace the cards with billiard balls and you have The Color of Money. Make it stocks and you have The Wolf of Wall Street or Other People's Money. Make it about thoroughbred horses and take your pick. Indeed, the story is much the same with poker itself, from Smart Money (1931) to Owning Mahowny (2003) and beyond.

Jessica Chastain redeems what would otherwise be a stock white hats/black hats film by gendering the story. Still, there are all the usual Hollywood tropes:  the loudmouth, the lovable loser, the tragic loser, the folksy judge, shadowy mobsters, a teary parent/parent confessional, the repentant… . Chastain stuns with her physical presence as well as her acting; she is drop-dead gorgeous and plays Molly as one part sophisticate and one part cocky naïf. It's the kind of role Julia Roberts would play, but with less depth. Chastain's radiance is such that the film feels meatier than it actually is, though I must give a shout out to Kevin Costner's secondary role as her father who is much better than I would have imagined.  But this film is ultimately like the real Molly Bloom—smart, but not smart enough. Both Chastain and the film are being touted for Oscars, but my money's on those smarter films and performances.

Rob Weir

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